I just saw Richard Kelly’s recent film The Box, and was happily surprised: it was a bad movie, but it wasn’t Southland Tales bad. Just average bad. In it, Kelly tried his Donnie Darko formula of 1 part character drama, 1 part horror, and 2 parts inexplicable dreamscape, and since it fell short, it got me wondering just what exactly it was about Donnie Darko that made it so successful?

Because it is successful.

It’s that rare kind of narrative that makes great use of genre but also breaks away in critical moments to reveal… what exactly? Something, well, inexplicable. Oh sure, there are “answers” provided in the film for the kind of double-helix time signature of the story line, but really, the great part about it is that you’re left scratching your head. There’s an aura about Donnie Darko that transcends one’s need to understand, and lets one just bask in the charming, quietly unsettling mystery. So why is all the head-scratching caused by his two subsequent films so dissatisfying? Can he possibly ever top Darko?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

12 responses to “The Box Stops Here”

  1. Steven says:

    Maybe Kelly is the modern-day Orson Welles. I think Donnie Darko got so much acclaim–even though I don’t think it was a huge success monetarily–that there was a lot to live up to going forward. The Box came much closer than Southland Tales did (and that god-awful S. Darko, which he wrote), but it certainly didn’t get all the way there. I think it’s a good sign of what’s to come from him in the upcoming years though. While he may never top his first movie, we probably have some good things to look forward to from him as a director/writer.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I’m pretty sure that although it didn’t do well in theaters, it’s done quite well in DVD sales. Anyway, one thing I didn’t mention about The Box is that it really felt like Kelly was being forced to “disclose” plot points along the way. To provide explication. It may be that I’m holding out hope for him, but I want to think that, left to himself, he wouldn’t have explained things.

      • Steven says:

        I think his disclosure in The Box could have something to do with accessibility, too. Having Frank Langella and Cameron Diaz in a movie means a lot more people are going to see it, so he might’ve had to dumb it down–by that I mean explain everything–because of that. It could be that Southland Tales was pretty far out there and totally bombed, too, so he’s playing it safe.

        • Shya Scanlon says:

          I was also disappointed to find no significant musical element. Saying this, I’m suddenly unconvinced that I’m not forgetting something, but that inofitself is significant. That Killers music video with Justin Timberlake tucked into the middle of Southland Tales is unforgettable. Definitely a highlight of the film.

  2. Phat B says:

    I haven’t yet seen The Box, but I’m hoping Kelly can take a page out of Christopher Nolan’s playbook. Just because your first hit was a mindfuck doesn’t mean you have to become a mindfuck director.

    I enjoyed Darko mostly for the 80’s soundtrack and the Patrick Swayze as pedophile arc. Plus it coined one of my favorite lines of dialogue: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” I think it was more successful as a pop culture satire of the 80’s than it was as a time travel flick.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      That’s a good point re: Nolan. Though I do think that the kind of mindfucking is quite different for them. Memento, though doing so quite craftily, was really staying much closer to genre conventions than Donnie Darko. I think Kelly is honestly interested in loose ends, which means he’s got a really tough road ahead of him, production-wise. I think this is one of the reasons we saw Lynch experiment with DV in Inland Empire: he wanted more control than producers would have allowed him.

      • Steven says:

        Nolan’s new movie seems to be more along the lines of completely overt mindfucking–at least based on the trailer. Big time special effects and all. But it’s also the first thing he’s written on his own in a long time (since Following, I think, which I loved), so it should be pretty interesting to see how it turns out, regardless of the big-name cast and budget.

  3. Dmitry Samarov says:

    I’d give ‘Southland Tales’ another try. To me, it’s one of the most to-the-point and angriest responses to the Bush years. It’s a big, incoherent mess by design. The layers of absurdity and nails-on-the-chalkboard bad taste are there to make a point…’The Box’ is definitely his most conventional film but judging by the public’s response his point of view’s hardly in line with the mainstream. I read an article about how it was the most hated film in years judging by surveys of folks exiting the theater…Don’t know that I could put a finger on what sets Kelly’s films apart, but I’m glad they exist and hope that he’s able to keep making them.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I probably will give it another shot at some point, Dmitry. But I’m very tolerant–indulgent, even–of absurdity and incoherence, and Southland Tales seemed to be just a disaster of a film. It’s one thing to use bad taste to make a point: Michael Haneke does this quite successfully, as does John Waters in a completely different way. It’s another to have one’s subject matter overwhelm the project structurally, which I think happened here. Basically, he isn’t a good enough filmmaker to make the film he wanted to make. That’s not to say he won’t ever be that good.

      Anyway, I say this with the acknowledgment that I haven’t seen it in many months, and then only once.

  4. I’ve had this argument over and over again. Got one convert at least, but it took him at least three viewings to get there. I agree that it probably got away from him, but there was more than enough there to keep me engaged. It was one of those times that I spent much of the running time with a grin on my face. Doesn’t happen often…

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Well, after enough viewings, cognitive dissonance kicks in and one begins to like the movie just to internally justify the amount of time one has spent viewing it… 😉

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